Politics & Policy

Approve the Cabinet

HHS secretary nominee Tom Price at his Senate confirmation hearing, January 18, 2017. (Reuters photo: Joshua Roberts)
There is no serious case against DeVos, Price, or Mnuchin.

The leaders of the Democratic party, especially Senator Chuck Schumer, need to think a little more deeply about the precedent they are setting with their near-unanimous and purely partisan opposition to virtually all of President Donald Trump’s remaining Cabinet choices.

The great strategic problem with the Democrats is that when they win, they think they’ll never lose again, and when they lose, they think they’ll never win again. When Barack Obama was in the White House, Democrats couldn’t get enough of his “pen and phone” strategy to run roughshod over the separation of powers; apparently, it never occurred to them that a Republican president might make use of these same tools. Now shut out of the White House and holding minority positions in both houses of Congress, Democrats are taking a scorched-earth approach to the president’s nominations; apparently, it hasn’t occurred to them that it is likely that a future Democratic president will face a Senate in which Republicans are a majority rather than a frustrated minority, and that it is entirely possible that a Republican opposition could do to most — or even all — of that future Democrat’s Cabinet picks what they did to Merrick Garland.

Borking may be the Democrats’ invention, but the Republicans are better at it.

On the merits, the Democrats do not have much of a case against Betsy DeVos, Tom Price, or Steven Mnuchin. The Democrats are making a dishonest argument, most intensely against DeVos, that being “qualified” for an office means agreeing with the Democrats on substantive policy questions. DeVos has spent most of her adult life working on education-reform projects, and the fact that these projects are based on policy positions at odds with those of most Democrats is not a question of qualification — it is a question of whether the president is entitled to nominate to the agencies officials who reflect his views.

He is.

Indeed, congressional Democrats — and Americans at large — should be breathing a sigh of relief over President Trump’s Cabinet choices and his nomination of Neil Gorsuch, a first-rate legal mind and jurist, to the Supreme Court. President Trump’s views and his approach to governance are, to put it gently, eccentric at times. It is not at all difficult to imagine his having made less impressive choices — or grossly inappropriate ones. (It is difficult to think of a plausible reason for Steve Bannon to be on the National Security Council.) Whatever one thinks of Betsy DeVos, Tom Price, or Steven Mnuchin or their ideas about public policy, there is not one of them who is not better qualified for the position to which he has been nominated than Barack Obama was for the presidency or Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose career mainly has consisted of being wife to a very successful politician, was to serve as secretary of state. And the Trump administration will benefit from the services of other excellent choices, such as Rick Perry and Jeff Sessions.

A generation ago, Democrats thought they could destroy Robert Bork in an act of petty political score-settling against President Ronald Reagan and never pay a price for it. They have, and the country has, as an increasingly politicized federal bench has undermined both the prestige and the perceived legitimacy of the judiciary. If you are wondering why Americans haven’t exactly gasped at Trump’s ugly denunciation of a “so-called judge,” that is part of the explanation: We may believe that judges should be above politics, but who believes that they actually are?

A generation ago, Democrats thought they could destroy Robert Bork in an act of petty political score-settling against President Ronald Reagan and never pay a price for it.

The Democrats are stung by the treatment of Garland, and understandably so. But if they want to make Supreme Court nominations the hill to die on, they ought to appreciate the fact that no Republicans died on that hill in 2016. Trying the same thing while in the minority, however, is a different game entirely.

De-escalating Supreme Court picks is probably too much to wish for. But if Democrats want to create the same dynamic for every Cabinet appointment, from secretary of education to secretary of health and human services, they ought to consider what that will mean for the country and for the effectiveness of American government. And if they lack the prudence and patriotism to give that serious thought, they might consider what it means for the Democratic party, too: At the moment, Republicans control the presidency, the Senate, the House, the great majority of state legislative chambers, and more than twice as many governorships as Democrats. Senator Schumer believes that taking a more hard-line stance against Republicans, especially on economic issues, will bring him and his party back to power. But given a choice between the hard-line position of Senator Bernie Sanders and the more accommodating position of Mrs. Clinton, Democratic primary voters turned their noses up at the Vermont socialist. If Senator Schumer thinks the key to a Democratic comeback in Florida or Michigan is out-Sandersing Sanders, he probably is making a miscalculation. That he apparently intends to attempt this nifty trick while Democrat-aligned rioters are firebombing buildings at Berkeley and rioting in Washington suggests that he is bent on the kind of bold Democratic thinking that turned Richard Nixon from a 32-state winner in 1968 to a 49-state winner in 1972.

No one was more dismayed to see the Republicans nominate Donald Trump than I, and no one was more surprised to see Trump win the election. But win the election he did, and as president of these United States he is entitled to name a Cabinet that comports with his views and his goals. If Senate Democrats want to transform that into yet another bare-knuckled partisan brawl, then they ought to at least consider the possibility that it is a fight they are going to lose in 2017 — and the next time the president has a “D” next to his name.

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